She showed off her books to me and told me how important the many details had been to her. One such detail that she took great pride in was how she instructed her illustrator to redo a particular picture several times because the dog looked too menacing. She was adamant that she didn’t want the dog to look too scary, and had the illustrator change the scene until the dog no longer looked frightening. I agreed that the illustrator had gotten this right; the dog was not at all menacing. Unfortunately from a narrative standpoint, this makes the dog’s role as the antagonist rather underwhelming. When our hero outsmarts the dog on the next page, it doesn’t feel particularly victorious. After all, that dog looks rather friendly. Looking at it on that page, that dog looks like it would be fun to play with, not like something to be outsmarted and escaped.
In tribute to the genius and recent death of Maurice Sendak, I want to posit that children do not need their stories to be sanitized and safe. I’ve already written about the melancholy at the heart of The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown. In that post, I quoted Sendak with one of the bravest, most insightful statements an author could make: “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.” (Mr. Sendak has said many clever, profound, brave things in his life, much of which you can and will continue to be able to read in magazines and online publications that are paying tribute to his legacy.) Of course, Sendak is best known for Where The Wild Things Are, a timeless classic of illustrated literature that deserves its place on bookshelves with the greatest pieces of modern American texts. It is a book both whimsical and scary, like all of Sendak’s work. Our protagonist – our little girl can already point to the little boy in a wolf suit and say “Max” – causes mischief “of one kind and another” and gets punished for it. His escape is to an island filled with monsters whose features are all described as terrible. As beautiful as Sendak’s illustrations are in this book, these wild things are not simply wild, they are grotesque and nightmarish.
There is a long history of children’s stories being frightening. This would be a good time to recall the stories of the Brothers Grimm. These linguists and cultural anthropologists collected European folklore that now consists of many Disney movies: Snow White, Cinderella, “Sleeping Beauty.” The Brothers Grimm also popularized the story of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. All of these stories feature real danger and real violence. Witches casting evil spells; wolves eating grandmothers. I mean, for God’s sake, their name was “Grimm.” (It really was, that was their real name.)
But if you want to go back ever further than nineteenth German folklore, read the Bible. One of the earliest stories I remember from Sunday School was the story of Noah’s Ark. Remember that one? The one where God wipes all living creatures off the face of the planet except for Noah’s family and just two of every creature? Or maybe you remember the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho. You know, where the Israelites kill everyone in the entire city except for a prostitute. Or Jesus, who was brutally executed by the Roman government in one of the most torturous forms of capital punishment invented by humanity.
Let me be clear: I’m glad I heard these stories as a child, and I plan on telling them to my daughter. They are frightening. They are violent. They are filled with evil and destruction and death. But children already know these things exist. It’s instinctive. Only as adults do we learn to pretend that these things do not threaten us. A good story requires the existence of evil and destruction and violence in order that their triumph might actually feel triumphant. Would we be afraid of the Big Bad Wolf if it hadn’t eaten Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother? Would Snow White’s rescue at the kiss of a prince mean anything if the apple hadn’t been so perilously poisoned? Would we care at all about Jesus’ resurrection if his death hadn’t been so brutal? If the dog is not menacing, it means nothing that it has been thwarted.
Children live in a world of fantasy, and that fantasy includes nightmares just as readily as it includes daydreams and fancies. When I take my little girl to daycare and drop her off and she cries and clings to my legs, what is she afraid of? She’s afraid that I will never come back. Of course, I’ve always come back, so where does this fear come from? It’s instinctive. From the moment an infant is born, she comes out of the womb and begins to experience hunger and thirst and cold and wonders if she is going to die. Each time she is fed and rocked she feels she has escaped annihilation… this time.
As children get older, they imagine their fears in more concrete, symbolic forms. The monster under the bed? What more classic image of symbolic fear is there? Children need a monster under their bed (or in the closet or in the house next door or wherever) because they need to conceptualize the very real fears of the dangers in the world. To sanitize our stories, to try and protect them from these fears is to tell them there is not danger in the world, that they will always be safe is a lie.
Here is why these dark and frightening stories are so powerful: because they teach children how to cope. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote much about the power of these dark fairy tales in helping children face their fears of abandonment and death in such tangible, concrete, symbolic ways. The danger to Little Red Riding Hood is real. Because of this, she is smart enough to recognize that something is fishy with her grandmother. The menace of a worldwide flood only highlights what it feels like to be on the ark. These stories don’t whitewash the truth of danger, but they also provide an escape and victory… for now.
Which brings me back to Where The Wild Things Are. Upon its release, some critics claimed it was too scary for children. The Journal of Nursery Education wrote, “We should not like to have it left about where a sensitive child might find it to pore over in the twilight.” In Max’s anger, he travels to a frightening a wild place, filled with fantastic and “terrible” monsters. But Max is not afraid of them. In fact, he tames them by performing the magic trick of staring into their eyes. What a Freudian image: we stare into the very wildness within ourselves to tame it and make it obey us. The wild rumpus takes place once we become king of our own wild things. This doesn’t make them less wild, but it does help us not to become consumed with our own fears. Isn’t that what all of these fairy tales are about? Even if we are poisoned into a deep sleep, some prince will find us. Even if a witch traps us in a gingerbread house, we can find a way to outsmart her. Even after brutal execution and death, resurrection comes three days later. Every day when I drop my daughter off at school, I come and pick her up. It’s not unreasonable to hope that at the end of the day, we can return to our room and find that our dinner is waiting for us and it is still hot.
Children know all of this; they’re not idiots. Adults are the idiots. Adults are the ones who want to make the dog less menacing. Adults want to believe we are safe and that we can make our children safe. But in addition to that being false, it’s also boring. This is what the best children’s literature reminds us: that wildness is everywhere, even within ourselves, and that even in our worst self, our mischief-of-one-kind-and-another self, we can find hope and rescue and warmth and love. Children don’t want or need us to lie to them about this, despite our need to be lied to. As the Cleveland Press wrote in its review of Where The Wild Things Are: “Boys and girls may have to shield their parents from this book. Parents are very easily scared.” The world is wild and my daughter knows it even better than I do. I hope I can listen to her.